How to lead people through transitions

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In this article series, written and created by Dr. Julie Hodges from the University of Durham, we look at how to make organisational change successful. Take a look at the whole article series to read all about emotion, communication and more.

Consider the following scenario. You are driving along a country road with the rain hitting the car’s windscreen faster than the wipers can clear it, and you are probably driving a little slower than usual. Why? Because you need to feel in control.  Fear of the personal consequences of what could happen a few kilometres ahead on a slippery road slows you down.

In the same way, when we hear about a proposed change in the company we work for most of us slow down until we can make sense of it.

It is part of our role as managers to help individuals transition through change.

Individuals and teams will react very differently to change for different reasons and will vary in how quickly or slowly they will let go of the past and move to commit and adapt to the change. Reactions can range from openly embracing change to actively resisting it by attempting to undermine it.

It is important to distinguish between the symptoms of resistance and the causes behind it.

Ultimately how people react will impact on the success of the change. Negative employee reactions can severely impede the realization of the intended benefits of change, whereas positive reactions can help to successfully embed and sustain the change.

It is therefore essential for managers to understand and appreciate employees’ reaction to change in order to help people transition through change more effectively. When individuals demonstrate symptoms of resistance it is important to distinguish between the symptoms of resistance and the causes behind it.

It may be tempting to resort to questionable techniques to overcome resistance, such as manipulation and coercion. These practices will only result in distrust, making change more difficult to implement.

So appreciating how individuals seek to steer, resist and make sense of change in different ways, is imperative to transitioning people successfully through change.

What motivates you doesn’t motivate most of your employees.

There are various types of change stories consistently told in organizations.

  • One is the good-to-great story: something along the lines of, ‘our position in the market has been eroded by intense competition and changing customer needs. If we change we can regain our leadership position.'
  • Another is the turnaround story: ‘we are performing below the industry standard and must change dramatically to survive. We can become a top-quartile performer by exploiting our current assets and earning the right to grow.' 

These stories seem intuitively rational, yet they too often fail to have the impact that is desired. What you care about is unlikely to tap into your employees’ primary motivators for putting extra energy into change programmes. You need to be able to tell a change story that includes the things that motivate your employees.

Monitor employee reactions.

To determine which aspects of the change are problematic or threatening you need to monitor how people react. It is important at different stages of a change process to assess individuals’ reactions to change (positive and negative), since as change progresses individuals’ reactions can fluctuate.

Embrace resistance

Change is resisted because it can hurt.

When new technologies displace old ones, jobs can be lost, prices can be cut and investments can be wiped out.

Your best recourse when the changes you are considering implementing pose a significant threat is to be honest, open, benevolent and fair. Although you cannot always make people feel comfortable with change, you can minimize the discomfort.

To do this you need to take the time before the launch of a change to assess systematically who might resist the change, for what reasons, and how this might be dealt with.  

Resistance should be considered as a form of feedback.

This is often provided best by people who know more about the day-to-day operations than you do. It can be turned into a constructive conversation that can positively help the change initiatives.

Dismissing the feedback deprives you of potentially valuable information and can jeopardize the trust your team have in you. Planning and implementing change can be made smarter, faster and even cheaper by you listening to the feedback embedded in resistance. 

If you learn to embrace resistance, it can be used as a resource to finding a better solution. 

Build and maintain trust.

Foster trust among employees by encouraging open communication, with emphasis on feedback, accurate information, adequate explanation of decisions, and open exchange of thoughts and ideas. You need to help people to answer the question ‘what will the change mean for me’?

People who have concerns about organizational change will need to hear messages that address their fears. People may also need reassurance that their jobs are not in jeopardy and that they will receive the training and development and the support they need to adjust to changes.

Providing details about the how and the why of job security, training and support can make reassurances more believable.

However, you must exercise integrity and honesty by not promising more than can be delivered. Broken promises can only confirm and intensify concerns and lead to distrust.

Dr Julie Hodges is an author, academic, and consultant on change in organizations. Her most recent books include: ‘Managing and Leading People through Change' and ‘Sustaining Change in Organizations.'

About Julie Hodges

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